Monday, September 28, 2009

Precedent

Sita Rama “Besides, I heard before, O you of great intelligence, in my paternal house from the brahmanas, that I should live in the forest.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)

The United States of America is governed by its founding document, the Constitution, which calls for three branches of government: the legislative, executive and judicial. The legislature consists of representatives elected by the people in the various states through popular vote elections. The President is elected through the Electoral College system, which is based on the popular votes accumulated in each state. Members of the judiciary are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate, the upper house of the legislature. Congressmen and presidents sometimes overstep their bounds and go against the directives of the Constitution, and thus the responsibility falls on the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, to keep the other two branches in check and to ensure that the principles set forth in the Constitution are not violated.

Naturally in any free society, citizens are allowed to redress grievances against the government through the court system. Starting with local courts, cases make their way through the legal system, sometimes ascending all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court only deals with cases where the constitutionality of laws is in question. These cases are argued by the best lawyers in the country in front of the nine justices that make up the court. Aside from referencing the actual text of the laws in question, it has become a common practice for jurists to cite previous case law to buttress their position. For example, the Supreme Court decided in the 1970s to sanction the practice of abortion through a decision in the famous Roe v. Wade case. The text of the Constitution makes no direct reference to the issue of abortion, so lawyers and judges on lower courts often use the Roe v. Wade decision to substantiate their position. There is even a widely accepted practice, known as the stare decisis principle, whereby lower courts are obligated to abide by the precedent set by higher courts pertaining to similar cases.

Supreme Court The idea behind such principles is that the rulings of a court, especially those of the Supreme Court, are the “law of the land”, meaning they are the final word on an issue and everyone is thus obligated to abide by such dictums. Supreme Court justices are perceived to be the most learned legal scholars, thus their opinions are treated with the utmost respect. Previous rulings of the courts are rarely overturned due to this principle. The best lawyers are those that can cite greater amounts of case law in their favor than their opponents. Precedent represents authority, authority equates to respect, and respect leads to victory in an argument.

Sita Devi was the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and husband of Lord Narayana. She was married to Lord Rama, who was God Himself incarnated on earth to play the role of a pious prince. Lord Rama was so much loved and adored by the people in His kingdom of Ayodhya that the presiding king, Dashratha, who was Rama’s father, had decided to install the Lord as his successor. Unfortunately, when the time for the installation came, Dashratha was forced to change course due to a promise he had made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi. Instead of becoming the new king, the Lord was ordered to live in exile for fourteen years, roaming the forest as a recluse subsisting only on fruits and roots. Lord Rama was dedicated to protecting the good name of His father, so He naturally accepted such a punishment without any qualms. He was worried how His wife Sita would handle the news, so He gently explained to her what happened, and He begged her to remain in the kingdom for the duration of the exile period. Sita Devi, being the perfect devotee and original energy of God, flat out rejected such a request, and she in turn put forth a series of arguments designed to persuade the Lord to allow her to accompany Him.

Sita RamaJust as a good constitutional lawyer would cite extensive case evidence, Sita cited the precedent set by the brahmanas of her father’s kingdom. Sita was raised in the kingdom of Maharaja Janaka of Mithila, one the most pious and respected kings in the history of the world. As any other good king during Vedic times, Janaka kept a group of brahmanas in his court, whom he would go to for advice on any and all matters pertaining to the kingdom. Sita was raised as the prized princess of Mithila, thus she was afforded all the luxuries and privileges associated with royal life. As evidenced by her pious nature and vast knowledge of the rules of propriety, she had listened very attentively to the instructions given by the brahmans in Janaka’s court throughout her upbringing. As part of her speech to Rama, she mentioned that the brahmanas had hinted that she was meant for living in the forest. Forest life is very austere and is considered suitable for only wild animals, beasts, and men who have all of their senses under control. Civilized material life means sense gratification, but material amenities are very hard to come by in the woods. Even today, a common recreational activity is the camping trip, where people are forced to “rough it” in the outdoors. Even many thousands of years ago when technology wasn’t so advanced, forest life was still considered very rough compared to city life. Yet the brahmanas knew how perfect Sita was in all respects, and it was for this reason that they hinted that she would have no trouble surviving in the forest.

Sita made reference to the statement of the brahamanas as a means of substantiating her position. Brahmanas are considered the most respected members of society because they belong to the priestly class, meaning they are completely dedicated to God. In the traditional Vedic system, brahmanas weren’t involved in fruitive work, but were instead focused completely on spiritual activities. Since they generally didn’t earn any type of salary, they lived off the charity supplied by the other members of society. Living a very austere life, their senses were completely under control, and they served as the teachers to the rest of society. Brahmanas were the principal authority, and Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has boldly declared His love and respect for them.

Durvasa Muni There are many historical examples of the Lord showing His love for the brahmanas, and one of them is related in the Mahabharata. When Lord Krishna appeared on this earth some five thousand years ago, His principle wife was Rukmini Devi. Rukmini was also an expansion of Goddess Lakshmi, so in essence she was the same Sita Devi, but just in a different form. While living together in householder life, the great sage Durvasa Muni came to visit them. According to the Vedic injunctions, a grihashi, or one in the householder stage of life, is required to be extremely hospitable to his guests, even if they be an enemy. In fact, the primary duties of a householder are to feed God by offering Him food, and then to feed the prasadam to guests. Only after all the guests have eaten are householders allowed to take any food, and that only whatever is left over. Durvasa wanted to test just how hospitable Lord Krishna and Rukmini Devi were, and thus he proceeded to be the most demanding of guests. Durvasa broke many precious objects in the house, made unreasonable demands for food, and even made Krishna smear food all over His body. Both the husband and wife gladly obliged all his requests, and for this, Durvasa was most pleased and gave them both great benedictions.

Through her arguments, Sita Devi proved to be the most expert of lawyers. She knew that God treats everyone neutrally in general, but that He makes special exceptions for His devotees. Pure brahmanas are Krishna’s greatest devotees, thus Sita knew that He was dedicated to their welfare. The brahmanas are known for speaking the truth. If Lord Rama had prevented Sita from coming with Him to the forest, then the word of the brahmanas in Janaka’s court would have proved to be false. God is the most famous and celebrated person in history, but He also takes special care to enhance the fame and prestige of His devotees. The words of the brahmanas would prove true, Sita would accompany the Lord to the forest, and thus precedent was maintained.